The Lord’s Supper, and worship in general, is something we should be very serious about.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 Corinthians 11:17-29
One of the worst things we can do as Christians is be flippant about the sacrifice Jesus made for us. Jesus gave us the Lord’s Supper to help us remember what He did and give us hope for our eternal future. How seriously and reverently do we approach the opportunities we have to share the Lord’s Supper?
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 1 Corinthians 11:26
If we take memorials seriously, and I hope we do, the Lord's Supper is the ultimate memorial.
[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Show Some Respect!
At the risk of sending your class down an endless rabbit hole, I wonder if you might be able to let some of your class members get on their own soapbox. Everyone has something that we find rather disrespectful. Give your class members a time limit and let them share their soapbox. At Texas A&M, our main student center is also a monument to soldiers killed in combat, so we have a posted rule “Do not walk on the grass” out of respect to fallen military. Plus, “do not wear your hat inside” to go along with it. We can be quite ugly about enforcing that rule.
Here are some “disrespectful” behaviors we can kind of laugh about.
In Japan, it is considered rude to leave a tip or laugh with your mouth open or walk around without a mask on when you’re sick.
In Haiti, it is considered disrespectful for children to whistle.
In Germany, it’s disrespectful to be late.
In France, it’s disrespectful to blow your nose in public.
And then here’s a “top ten” list of disrespectful behaviors in America:
(10) cutting in line,
(8) ignoring the elderly,
(6) being late,
(5) public cell phone use,
(4) being rude to employees,
(3) blocking the aisle in a store with your cart,
(2) driving slow in the left lane,
(1) not picking up after your dog.
I’m not sure about that order, but that’s a fun list. Those behaviors show a lack of respect for everyone around.
The point: because the Christians in Corinth were treating the Lord’s Supper as a “ho-hum” thing, Paul made it clear that they were disrespecting Jesus and everything Jesus did for them. That might step on a few of our toes!
This week (Spring Break), my family is going to take a couple of days to visit the Vietnam War Memorial at Fort Benning, and the Andersonville National Cemetery. Thinking back, I strongly recommend people to visit the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery and Ellis Island. One day, I would like to visit the World Trade Center Memorial and the USS Arizona Memorial.
Memorials come in all shapes and sizes, but they share a simple purpose: to help us remember. Ask your class– what are their “favorite” memorials? And why? You probably see where I’m going with this: the Lord’s Supper is our memorial for what happened on the cross. How reverently do we approach it? How seriously do we take it?
This Week's Big Idea: The Lord’s Supper and the Love Feast
Jesus did a lot of ministry centered around meals. Most obviously, meals were a common and socially acceptable time for fellowship and teaching in the old Jewish and Greek cultures. People in that day generally only ate twice a day—a light meal around noon, and a large “family” dinner during which everyone would talk about their day and recent news. Less obviously, meals were a clear window into society and one’s own beliefs and prejudices. Jesus used that to expose how the Jewish leaders didn’t really care about “tax collectors and sinners” (Matt 11:19) as well as how His own disciples still cared about jockeying for positions of prestige (by sitting next to Him at dinner; Luke 22:24-30).
As far as we can tell, the early churches would gather for a weekly worship service (usually on Sunday), and then they would gather in each other’s homes for dinners during the week. They would spend that time teaching and admonishing one another and lifting one another up in prayer and with fellowship. Most likely this practice was connected with the Jewish tradition of chaburoth, in which family/friends would gather before every Sabbath or festival (before sundown) and share a meal. The host would pronounce a blessing, break bread, and distribute it. The meal would be characterized by joyous religious discussion. At the end of the meal, a final “cup of blessing” would be shared and a psalm sung.
Early in Jerusalem, it seems that the church ended those dinners with a “Lord’s Supper” ceremony (Acts 2:44-46; Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper at the end of a Passover meal). But as the church began to spread and the Christians from Jerusalem began “exporting” their practices to other parts of the Roman Empire, cultural clashes would have added some challenges to this practice. First, there was the problem of Jews not eating at the same table as Greeks (see Gal 2:11-14). That’s going to send the wrong message. But the bigger problem in Corinth seemed to be economic. Greeks did not allow table fellowship with people from a different social class. Part of that was pragmatic; wealthy people had cooks and servants and lots of food. Poor people, well, didn’t. Most of that was basic discrimination. Second, there was the size of the houses. Even the wealthiest people could only fit so many in their homes (see below), and that’s not even “banquet style” seating—wealthy people back then actually reclined while they ate. Further, custom was that the wealthiest people would enter a room first, and then they would get the best seats. When space ran out, everyone left would have to stand around the walls and watch. So, sharing a meal with the Lord’s Supper was a source of great trouble.
By the second century, the “love feast” was still held (and given that specific name), but the Lord’s Supper was shared purely in the context of a worship service. The feast part had created too many problems.
Our Context in 1 Corinthians
We skipped ahead last week to talk about the very important chapter on resurrection (for Easter). Now, we jump back to the previous line of questions. The Christians in Corinth seem particularly obsessed with their own freedoms and rights. Paul has explained how those “freedoms” do not extend to immoral behavior, nor do they allow Christians to put themselves ahead of others. In chapter 11, he turns to the topic of worship, which the Corinthians have been doing badly. The problem seems to be that they have imported a lot of local/Greek custom into their worship, making a mockery of the living God. That’s how I understand 11:2-16 (which we skip)—the women there were so determined to express their freedom/privilege that they were shaming their husbands and ignoring God’s design for the family. He will later go on to talk about how God intended spiritual gifts to be used in worship and the building up of the church. This week, we focus on how the Lord’s Supper should be addressed properly in worship.
Part 1: With Worship (1 Corinthians 11:17-22)
Now in giving this instruction I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse. For to begin with, I hear that when you come together as a church there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. Indeed, it is necessary that there be factions among you, so that those who are approved may be recognized among you. When you come together, then, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. For at the meal, each one eats his own supper. So one person is hungry while another gets drunk! Don’t you have homes in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I praise you? I do not praise you in this matter!
The main point of this lesson: believers should approach every remembrance of Jesus’ death with reverence and unity. Because we don’t share the Lord’s Supper in context of a meal (“love feast”—see left), we will miss the details here. We can see how it would be bad enough at a church lunch if everyone brought their own food and some people loaded up with steaks while others had cheese sandwiches. (Do a Google search on “Thanksgiving rich poor” to see how meals display inequalities.) And worse, some people would get rowdy drunk at their meal—how is that showing respect for others? (Have you had a drunk guest at a family reunion?) These were big problems.
And here’s the worst part of it all: the Lord’s Supper is designed to be the ultimate display of Christian unity. We all sit at the same table and share the same meal. It is not a meal of excess—just basic food and drink (remember that water quality was such that wine was usually safer to drink). It is a chance to thank God for His many blessings, starting with salvation itself through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Anything that revealed divisions was antithetical to the purpose of the Supper.
In other words, the Corinthians thought that they were doing well just by having the Lord’s Supper. They did not know Malachi 1:10: “I wish one of you would shut the temple doors, so you would no longer kindle a useless fire on My altar!” We are better off not worshiping the Lord at all than doing it wrongly. Paul didn’t want to believe that it was happening; he didn’t want to believe that a professing Christian could be so wrong about Jesus as to be capable of this behavior (have you ever thought this way?). And to make it worse, they knew they were coming together during these times as a church. It was official, sacred action. This is hard to explain to some—everything we do as a church (whether or not we are talking about the “whole” church or an “official” meeting—everything from softball to a mission trip to an Easter Egg hunt) is sacred action in the sense that it should be set apart to the glory of God. And when it is a time of worship, like gathering for the Lord’s Supper, there should be no questions about that.
Unfortunately, the Corinthians had let their cultural norms infect their practice of the Lord’s Supper (and love feast) about who eats with whom and what and where. Their actions had nothing to do with Jesus and everything to do with the culture. They were better off not sharing the Lord’s Supper at all than doing this!
How does this apply to us? As Baptists, we don’t believe in the superstitions of other Lord’s Supper practices (see below). I don’t believe there’s anything magical about unleavened bread, wine, or the “words of institution” that are used. So, if churches want to use common food and drink for their culture, or eating practices common to their culture, I want to be generous with that. But the Lord’s Supper is a time of worship. If a practice distracts from Jesus (see next section) or makes people think irreverently, then that’s a line we shouldn't cross. For example, I’ve heard of groups using soda and crackers to do a Lord’s Supper. I’m afraid that sends an irreverent message. (But I also hope I’ve taught y’all enough than to make blanket declarations about someone’s intent to condemn another’s practice before talking with them about it.)
Aside: Cliques and Segregation in Christianity
In verse 19, Paul mentions the value of factions/segregation. What Paul is talking about is what the company you keep reveals about you. A person’s friendships tell us how ready that person is for leadership in a church. But that’s the only way in which factions are good. We have cliques in our churches (this is a great topic for all ages); in fact, many churches are actually just cliques broken off from other churches which are themselves socioeconomic cliques. Some who have come to our outreach events still think of First Baptist as the “rich white person church”. That’s tough to overcome. One thing we cannot do is reinforce that image by our behavior. When we gather, we should be comfortable “mingling” among people from every walk of life in our community. Different culture, different economics, different sins, different friends—none of that should matter. We are all sinners in need of a Savior. Tell your class to look around this Sunday—what cliques do they see in our church? And what can they do to help tear those kinds of wall down?
Bonus Aside: Gaius’s House
Gaius was Paul’s host during his time in Corinth (Rom 16:23), and he is also one of the few people that Paul personally baptized. His home was large enough that the entire church met there. I already mentioned some of the challenges of having a wealthy, “first class” citizen in a church. When Caesar commissioned rebuilding Corinth as a Roman colony, he sent several important families to “take charge” of the city; Gaius likely descended from one of those. Such important citizens would not share table fellowship with anyone from a lower class. Slaves were not allowed to speak to them. This showed up in house architecture.
The focus of a Greco-Roman house was the central courtyard/atrium. Workrooms and kitchens would adjoin it (for efficient entertaining). Many houses would also have a small dining room (triclinium) off the atrium where the homeowner would share private meals. There probably wasn’t room for the entire church to eat together in the atrium, so Gaius and his peers may have eaten separately. And it is probable that other social classes also ate together in other private rooms, leaving the “commoners” and slaves in the atrium with whatever food was left or they brought. With that in mind, the structure of the house actually contributed to segregation within the church, making the problems Paul identified that much bigger. But don’t worry—when churches started building special buildings, we still found ways to segregate ourselves, either through special booths, charging “rent” for pews, or building balconies for the undesirables.
Part 2: With Remembrance (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: On the night when he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
You see, the Lord’s Supper is not “mere” bread and juice—it is a symbol of what Jesus did for us. There is no magical power in it, but there is an intense spiritual function of forcing us to consider Jesus’ sacrifice. That’s because we don’t just talk about it or look at an image; the Lord’s Supper includes things we touch and eat. We physically get "involved" with the Lord’s Supper. To the Jews, the bread was taken directly from the Passover feast which reminded them of the Exodus from Egypt, a very powerful element of their identity. The same goes for the cup, which if you remember our Seder service, represents a specific part of Passover (see below). As Christians today, we don’t have that connection. But we do realize that bread represents life (“our daily bread”) and that juice/wine represents blood. As you read these words, ask your class to share what they think when they hear them. How do these words make them feel? I can’t hear these words without going to a deep spiritual well (which I’m sure is the point of Jesus giving us a very simple formula to follow). The words themselves should make us take them very seriously. As we do this, we proclaim the Lord’s death until He returns. From this perspective, the Lord’s Supper represents two purposes: reminding everyone that Jesus died for our sins, and reminding everyone that Jesus will come back in victory and judgment. If you need to, tell everyone about our discussion last week about the resurrection. In other words, the Lord’s Supper is about salvation and eternity. Those are not subjects to treat with anything other than serious respect.
Aside: Primer on the Covenants
We’ve been through this a few times, but it never hurts to keep covering the basics. Everything about the “New” Covenant (in Jesus’ blood) is designed to echo back to the “Old” Covenant (in the Passover lamb’s blood) in a way that shows how Jesus fulfilled the old covenant. In fact, Jesus fulfilled all of the original covenants—that with Adam, that with Abraham, that with Israel, and that with David—as no one else had or could. If you need a primer, check out the Bible Project video: https://thebibleproject.com/explore/covenants/
Here’s what might help you share the big picture with your class. In Judaism, their identity is rooted in the Exodus (which includes the Law given on Mt. Sinai), and they remember that annually in the Passover meal. But those things were all just a shadow of what was to come. In Christianity, our identity is rooted in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and we remember that weekly in Sunday worship. Our replacement to Passover is the Lord’s Supper (which Christians celebrate with different frequencies). Just as Passover reminded the Jews of everything important in their history, the Lord’s Supper reminds Christians of everything important to us and also points us ahead to the end of all things. The temporary blood of the Passover lamb has been replaced with the once-for-all blood of the Eternal Lamb of God—a new covenant that is now written on our hearts (Jer 31:31, Eze 36:22). When we share the Lord’s Supper, we remember what it means to be a Christian—the price of our relationship with God, and the hope of our future.
Part 3: With Examination (1 Corinthians 11:27-29)
So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sin against the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself; in this way let him eat the bread and drink from the cup. For whoever eats and drinks without recognizing the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.
Here’s where things get real. Some folks want to justify their “bad days” in worship—drifting off during Sunday School, skipping a Sunday altogether, thinking about lunch during the sermon—and we all have our bad days. But when we treat the Lord’s Supper with anything less than our utmost devotion, we are spitting on the sacrifice of Jesus Himself. And you think, “That seems a bit harsh, doesn’t it?” But Paul goes on in this chapter to say that some church members have actually died because they were so disrespectful of the Supper (! that’s a tough one to explain). That’s harsh! Now, we live in a world in which people have disrespected the Lord’s Supper for a long time and no one has evidently died from that. But Paul also says that God gives us consequences for our disrespect; wonder aloud if perhaps some of the difficulties we have faced in our life might be a result of being flippant with God (particularly in the Lord’s Supper)? (Please tell your class not to dwell too long on that; Paul’s purpose is not to make us dwell on the past but to make changes in our future. I have read about churches in generations past that have stopped taking the Lord’s Supper altogether rather than chance falling under judgment. That’s definitely the wrong reaction!)
So what exactly does Paul mean by “an unworthy manner”? Many sources, including your leader guide, believe the subsequent reference to “the body” essentially means “without solemn reverence and heartfelt gratitude for the sacrifice of Christ”. That’s definitely a part of it. But when Paul uses “body” in this letter, most of the time he is referring to “the church”. If that’s what Paul has in mind here, then he is pointing us back to all of the problems they were having with this “love feast”. By not having regard and respect for their fellow church members, these Christians were missing the point of Christ’s sacrifice (equal salvation for all) and the love we are thus supposed to have for every human. By not treating one another with love and respect, these Christians were bringing judgment upon themselves.
You can apply it like this: there are lots of things in life we are supposed to take seriously: a driver’s license, a weapon, a marriage, college studies, a job, etc. When we fail to take them seriously, there can be severe consequences. Ask your class if they take the privilege of coming to the Lord’s Table as seriously as they do their right to drive, or their continued employment. We should. Indeed, according to Paul, how seriously we treat the Lord’s Supper reveals to us how seriously we truly take the other important God-given things in our lives. The same is true of every corporate worship opportunity we have. We were made to love God; it took God’s Son dying for us in agony for us even to have the ability to do that. Every chance we get as brothers and sisters in Christ to praise God for His love and mercy should be approached with utmost reverence. There is nothing more important that we do. The next time we have a Lord’s Supper scheduled (remember, we just shared one last Thursday), encourage your class to pour their heart into repentance and preparation. And also pray for our worship service, that all of our hearts would be in tune with God’s praise!
Closing Thoughts: Various Traditions in the Lord’s Supper
If you’ve been in a different church when they shared a Lord’s Supper (they might have called it “Communion” or “Eucharist”, which refer to the same thing; the name which goes a very different direction is the Catholic “Mass” and we just don’t have time to go into the theological maze that is the Mass) you’ve noticed that many of the details are different. In some churches, the people come forward to receive, in some they kneel, in some they dip the bread in the juice (“tincture”), in some they do this every Sunday, and so on. If you guys have a chance to dwell on the Lord’s Supper in your discussion, then by all means ask your class about the different experiences they may have had from church to church and what they think about the differences. Here’s my quick take for you:
I’ve written multiple articles about the arguments churches have had over how to share the Lord’s Supper. They go back to a basic approach to the Bible—do we do only exactly what’s clearly written in the Bible? or do we see the Bible setting guidelines for us to appropriate in our cultural setting? Some churches only have the Lord’s Supper once a year because Jesus instituted it in the Passover setting. Some churches only share it around a table because that’s where Jesus did it. Frankly, the Bible does not give rules about any of that; it gives us a formula—when we do it, we do it in remembrance of Jesus. For me personally, the primary driver for us today is intent and purpose. Are we reverently and humbly approaching the Lord’s Table with the right heart? And are we doing it for the right reason? If so, then I think there is room to be flexible on many of the details of observance.